Saturday, January 27, 2007

Art and Literature of the Spanish Civil War

César Vallejo’s “Spain, Take This Cup From Meand The Art and Literature of the Spanish Civil War: A Retrospective Analysis


Before I took this class, my knowledge of the Spanish Civil War was very limited. However, through the works we have examined in the forms of film, novels, poetry, music, and historical documentation, as well as from the first hand accounts of the Lincoln Brigade veterans, I have attained a greater understanding of the issues and events involved in the conflict. The remarkable amount of literary and artistic work that the war generated made it difficult to choose a topic. As I am a Comparative Literature major, it at first seemed natural to choose one of the novels we read to analyze, but that seemed a little dull. I also considered expanding on my rather cursory treatment of the series of films that accompanied this course. I chose not to do so because I felt that my final project should delve into some new territory. Finally I decided to take César Vallejo’s poem, Spain, Take This Cup From Me, and try to analyze it in terms of some of the other material we have covered in class.


One reason I decided to take this approach is that I have always had a measure of trouble in understanding poetry. My hope is that by looking hard at this poem and what it does to me as a reader, I will acquire new insight into poetry in general, and into this poem in particular. I also decided to follow this path because I feel that this course is one of the most interesting that I have experienced in my academic career, and I hope that by drawing on the material we have looked at in and out of class, I can summarize that experience.

Why this poem, though? I decided to use “Spain, Take This Cup From Me” as the focus of my paper because I feel that it captures the essence of what was at stake in the war by transcending the divisions of the right and left. In other words, to Vallejo, Spain was more than the sum of its rival factions, and that which was at stake was more than the supremacy of one political model over another. In this way Vallejo’s Spain was a symbol for the whole world. The fall of Spain, therefore, is really the failure of civilization in general. To Vallejo, Spain is the earth and Spain’s people are the children of that earth. The opening line of the poem reinforces this image as the narrative voice calls out, “Children of the world . . .”

The fall, or failure, thus has implications throughout the world. Vallejo’s call serves to symbolize the global implications of the war. This movement from specific to general is also used very effectively in the film The Spanish Earth, in which the effects of the war on a single village are projected on the rest of Spain, and from there to the entire world. This also brings to mind the international make-up of the armies of both sides. This international aspect of the war is one of its most fascinating and revealing facets. Almost all of the works we looked at in class touched on this international aspect in some way. Both Homage to Catalonia and For Whom the Bell Tolls (film and novel) had for their primary characters international volunteers. Both the first film we saw in class (the work of Abe Osheroff, a Lincoln Brigade veteran) and the first film in the film festival, The Good Fight, dealt primarily with the experiences and motivations of the international volunteers. ¡Ay Carmela! dealt with the role of foreign combatants, not only on the side of the Republic, but on the side of Franco. In this film, as in many of the other works we studied, the role of international forces on the side of the fascists is made clear. Most of the military people in the film are either Italians or Poles (as Republican POWs). In the climactic scene, we even catch a glimpse of some Moors sitting in the back of the theater. Much of the poetry in the Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse was penned by non-Spanish people. Vallejo himself is from Peru, not Spain. He shared with people like Robert Jordan and George Orwell the conviction that what was happening in Spain was but a sign of what could happen in the rest of the world.

The title of the poem, taken from the plea of Christ as he contemplated his impending martyrdom in Gethsemane, gives cause to think that for Vallejo, the outcome of the events in Spain was not completely unexpected. He says, “how early in the sun what I was telling you!” as if to say “I told you so.” However, just as Christ knew that his fate was decided, but was compelled to make a last, desperate plea to God, Vallejo seems to be hesitant to give voice to his beliefs outright. His repeated “I mean, it’s just a thought” when referring to the fall of Spain is reminiscent of Christ’s “nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” This attitude of semi-denial can also be seen in the character Robert Jordan. He is certain that his mission is doomed to failure, yet he is unable to deviate from his path. Also, the character Carmela must have known what the outcome of her actions would be, but still does what she feels she must under the given circumstances. This all boils down to the idea of doing what one believes to be right in the greater scheme of things, despite the fact that the consequences will be fatal. This sentiment was evident in the comments of the Lincoln Brigade veterans in the question and answer sessions at the film festival. They new what was at stake, and they were willing to lay down their lives for it. Here again the movement from one’s specific actions to their effect on “the big picture” can be seen.


The first stanza has many other important and evocative lines in it. The passage, “if Spain falls/from the sky downward” brings to mind the role of air power in the war. This also ties in with the international aspect of the conflict in that most of the pilots and planes came from Germany or Italy. For Whom the Bell Tolls (novel and film) and ¡Ay Carmela! (film and song) deal with the disparity in air power between the Republic and her enemies. To Pilar and the rest of Pablo’s people, and to the band of El Sordo, the lyrics “No tenemos ni aviones/ni tanques, ni cañones . . .” take on a very real meaning. This image combined with the image of “concave temples” is especially reminiscent of the scene in Hemingway’s work in which El Sordo’s band is bombed on the concave, chancre-like hilltop by fascist planes. This is particularly true when Joaquín begins to pray as if in church as the planes move in. “Concave temples” also brings to mind the idea of bombed out churches and possibly foxholes, both common enough sights in the war.

The “two terrestrial plates” might represent the opposing sides in the conflict. The inertia embodied in such an image is an apt representation of the irreconcilable nature of the opposing positions of the Republic and her enemies. The image of Spain with her arm caught between these two forces adds weight to the concept that Vallejo’s Spain is not just the Republic, but really is much more than either side or even both sides put together. Spain is the innocent victim caught between two opposing and uncompromising opponents, and her people will be the real losers in the war. This is evidenced by the death rattle or “ancient noise” that Vallejo hears so prematurely. It is not the death rattle of Franco or of the Republic, but that of the “Children of the world,” of the hopes of the people of Spain.

The last line of the first stanza, “how old your 2 in your notebook,” brings up one of the specific losses that will be suffered by the Spanish people should the gains of the Republic be reversed due to the war. This, of course, refers to the literacy campaign launched by the Republic in order to help bring her population into the twentieth century. As we saw by the examples of Pablo and Anselmo in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the ability to read and write was a rare one for most of the people of Spain. In the film Los Santos Inocentes, we saw the result of the fascist victory in the pathetic attempts by the peasants to write their own names for the foreign ambassador. It is remarkable that the Republic continued its drive for literacy even after the war began.. One example of this literacy drive that we looked at in class was the photo of the tank driver practicing his letters while perched on the outside of his tank. It was especially exciting to be able to look at an authentic copy of the same book he was using in class. It is this dedication to the liberation of the human mind that must have influenced so many artists, writers, and intellectuals to support the Republic.


In the second stanza Vallejo blurs the roles of the fascists and the Republic. At first this is a confusing passage because it is unclear whether “mother Spain” is the Republic or the rebels. This is because throughout most of the poem, “Spain” is generally taken to mean the Republic. However, the second stanza refers to the “cross & sword” as mother Spain’s ferules. As a ferule is an instrument used to maintain discipline amongst school children (like a ruler across the knuckles), this seems to be referring to the military (sword) and the church (cross), obviously groups on the fascist side of the conflict which were used to discipline the Spanish people. This seeming paradox strengthens the idea that “Spain” is not only meant to signify the Republic, but the fascists, and all those uncommitted, too. On the other hand, mother Spain and the teacher could be read as being two distinct entities, in which case the stanza could be interpreted as saying that because mother Spain (the Republic) gave the people the gift of literacy and understanding, the teacher (the fascists) would use their instruments of control to punish them. The last line of the stanza acts to further blur the distinction between the sides. The line “she is with herself” suggests that despite her inner divisions, Spain is one entity.


In the third stanza the image of the Spanish people being children under that tutelage of the Republic is brought to full development. The consequences of a fascist victory are brought into sharper focus through a series of symbols which refer to the stunted growth of a neglected child:

children, how you will stop growing!/ . . . /how you’re never going to have more than ten teeth,/how the dipthong will remain in downstroke, the medal in tears!/How the little lamb is going to continue/tied by its leg to the inkwell!/How are you going to descend the steps of the alphabet/to the letter in which pain was born!

All of these images refer in some way to the arrested development of the newly semi-literate under a victorious Franco. The image of the lamb tied to the inkwell extends the religious symbolism that is introduced by the title. The martyred people of Spain are symbolized by this clear reference to Jesus Christ, often referred to as the lamb of God. Its being tied to the inkwell implies that being denied the opportunity for literacy, the people of Spain will remain under the yoke of ignorance.


The line “how the year is going to punish the month” apparently refers to the fact that the short term gains of the Republic will be replaced by long term repression if the Republic does not prevail. The imagery used in this stanza brings to mind the characters in Los Santos Inocentes. Childlike and even humorous in their simplicity, the main protagonist (young master’s hunting companion) and his crazy brother-in-law serve as perfect examples of the kind of backward submissiveness of which the Republic sought to rid Spain. It also utilizes the same “specific to general” imagery employed in the film The Spanish Earth.


The fourth stanza seems to be calling for quiet among the combatants and their supporters. The overall feeling of this part of the poem is that Spain is trying to choose her destiny, and she needs peace in order to make the right choice. There is an allusion to Hamlet, with Spain, not knowing what to do, consulting a living skull. I have to admit that the specifics of this stanza elude me, but the general tone creates the impression of a Spain caught in a difficult situation and in need of some kind of guidance. This may be stretching it a bit, but the dispersion of Spain’s energy in many directions might be a reference to the division between her rival factions. This could extend not only to the forces of the right and left, but to the factions within either side. We didn’t see much about divisions on the right, probably because of the authoritarian nature of its makeup. However, we did see the many divisions within the Republic which were probably at least partly responsible for some of its problems in waging the war. This is made especially apparent in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, where he describes what he sees as the outright persecution of one leftist faction, the P.O.U.M., by another, the Communist Party.


Finally, the fifth stanza returns to many of the same themes introduced earlier in the poem. As in the fourth stanza there is a call to “lower your voice” whose significance seems to be tied up in allowing Spain enough breathing room to figure out her future. It also might be a call for the rival leftist factions to put their individual agendas on the back burner for the moment in the interest of winning the war. “If the forearm lowers” refers back to the first stanza where Spain’s forearm is caught by the terrestrial plates. This forearm is a powerful image. It brings to mind our own Statue of Liberty with its raised arm holding a torch. It also reminds me of the parts Carmela played in the various stage shows she and Paulino put on for both the Republicans and the fascists. It also brings to mind several of the images in Picaso’s Guernica. Several ideas introduced earlier in the poem are reintroduced in this stanza. The forearm, the ferules, the “I mean its just a thought” come back in this section to act as reinforcements for the previously introduced ideas. The two terrestrial plates are changed into two terrestrial limbos, suggesting that whichever side wins the war, Spain’s future is uncertain. This stanza also introduces the idea of hope in the last line. By saying “Out, children of the world, go & look for her!” Vallejo appears to be saying that even if the Spanish Republic is lost, its spirit can be found again by its people if they go out and look for it. As we learned through the material we looked at in class, many of the exiled defenders of the Republic did just that, though whether they ever found it again is doubtful.

As a whole, the poem seems to be saying that the Spanish people have been kept ignorant for too long, yet the events of the time seem to point to a worsening rather than an improving of these conditions. They are referred to as children throughout the work, and they seem doomed to retain that status in the event of a fascist victory. Whatever the outcome of the war, Vallejo seems certain that the real losers will be the Spanish people, who, after enjoying a moment of liberty, seem destined to be plunged back into the darkness of repression from which they came. This echoes Orwell’s belief that even should the Republic win the war, a form of dictatorship will probably be the result.


I hope that the connections I have drawn between Vallejo’s poem and the other material in class have not been stretched too thinly. It is certain that I have missed many points of comparison that might have occurred to another reader with a different degree of knowledge on the topic. However, my purpose was really to illuminate how this poem represented the overall experience of the class, and how certain themes ran through many of the works we examined. I believe that as a poem’s meaning really lies in the experience of the reader as he or she reads it, by extension the meaning of a class is really the experience that the student has as the class progresses. For each student/reader the experience is different depending on what he or she brings to the class/poem in the first place. I brought very little to this class in terms of knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, but I leave this class with my bags stuffed with what I hope is an experience that will continue to enlighten my understanding of art, literature, history, politics, and life.

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